En Route: Up, Up and Away

In his new series about the ways we travel, Darryl Campbell talks about the modern disenchantment with airplanes.

I first tried pickled ginger in an airplane. I first watched Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed on a five-inch airplane video monitor. I’ve only ever seen the Aurora Borealis and the continent of Africa from forty thousand feet. And, by my count, I’ve flown on nearly twenty major airlines in my lifetime, at least five of which — TWA, America West, Northwest, Pan Am, and Reno Air — no longer exist.

Such is the life of an airline brat. My dad has spent the last thirty years working for airlines, and as he moved around the country with each new job, we usually followed. The lifestyle has its perks (free flights, occasional upgrades) and its downsides (an almost total lack of stability). And it trains you from an early age to love everything about flying, from take-off to landing.

airplanesThis is not a popular viewpoint In the last decade, air travel has gone from inconvenient to hellish. Name your poison: cost-cutting, passenger overload, stubborn unions, post-9/11 security measures, oil prices, low-cost carriers, the obesity epidemic… the list goes on, but all of these factors conspire, in various combinations, to raise the collective blood pressure of the flying public. Complaints are common, from tweets to newspaper blogs. Even George Clooney’s character in the movie Up in the Air, the only person in recent pop-culture history who had an unqualified love of flying, turned out to be something of a social deviant (in the nicest possible sense of the term).

To be fair, the experience of airplane travel skews more toward efficiency than comfort. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that for however many hours, you’re stuck in a cramped aluminum tube full of recycled air and irritated strangers — and that’s after you’ve spent god knows how long navigating ugly airport terminals, draconian security measures, and baffling ticket systems. On top of the close quarters, we’re helpless before storms, turbulence, and tedium; we’re insignificant compared to these machines that hurtle through the air at several hundred miles an hour, whose engines can blow over a 3,000-pound car. And, in my opinion, there is nothing — not even computer errors, not even car trouble — more frustrating than a flight delay.

Still, in such an exaggerated age, maybe we focus too much on the negative. To paraphrase comedian Louis CK, we’ve let our flying-related dyspepsia get in the way of our sense of wonder. Not just in the sense of appreciating technology for technology’s sake, either. For me, the airplane window turns the world into an impromptu art gallery; it forces me to see the beauty of mundane things, from patterns of irrigated crops to the lighted grid of city streets. It also makes me recognize good work done well, whether it’s the sturdy design of an airplane wing or the clockwork efficiency of an attentive cabin crew. And yes, it makes the world seem a little more dangerous, and a little more captivating for it; there’s nothing like a sudden fifty-foot drop in altitude or a nearby thunderstorm to bring everything around you into terrifyingly sharp focus.

But instead, we insist that air travel have all the amenities of home, or at least the office. As the list of approved electronic devices gets longer, and the more we retreat into our digital fortresses, the less we realize how extraordinary flying has become. Most people don’t even bother to look out the window, or even raise their window shades. And as any sharp-eared flyer will have noted, no longer do pilots bother to point out significant landmarks over the airplane PA (of all the amenities that have disappeared from airplanes over the years, this is the one that I’ve missed the most). In our desire to have our lives uninterrupted, we’ve forgotten the simple (and rare) joys of watching the world go by at seven miles up.

What do we lose in the process? Maybe we only deny ourselves the aesthetic pleasures of watching landscapes go by, or bursting through the uppermost cloud layer on an overcast day and basking in the sunshine once again. Maybe we start to forget that the world isn’t actually flat, and that things like distances, differences, and transitions still exist, and still matter.

Or maybe we are just going into a deeply unsentimental age, where people who stare aimlessly out of airplane windows and who prefer casual conversation with their seatmates to the solipsistic world of noise-canceling headphones and iPads — people like me, in other words — are fast becoming another anachronism.

Photo from the Boston Public Library

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.